Friday, February 15, 2013

Mandatory Minimum Cop-out

As Chicago announces plans to pass mandatory minimum sentences for gun offenses, Julie reminds the city that mandatory minimums aren't what they seem:
On Monday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez announced their support for legislation to impose mandatory minimum prison sentences for gun crimes. The move comes just months after Chicago closed the book on its deadliest year in decades; in 2012, there were 506 homicides committed in the Windy City, a disappointment after three years of decline. While the instinct to lock up dangerous, gun-toting criminals is a good one, the proposal unveiled Monday is a cop-out.

To begin with, even the name "mandatory minimum" is false advertising. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are neither mandatory nor do they impose minimum sentences. Under a truly mandatory sentencing law, everyone arrested for the same offense would end up receiving the same sentence if convicted. But that's not how mandatory sentencing laws work. They simply transfer the discretion that a judge would have to impose an individualized sentence (based on relevant factors, such as a defendant's role in the crime, criminal history, and likelihood of reoffending) and give that discretion to prosecutors.

Under mandatory sentencing laws, prosecutors have control over sentencing because they have total and unreviewable authority to decide what charges to pursue. They can decide to give a deal to someone whose cooperation they think is helpful and, as a result, help them to avoid a mandatory sentence. Or prosecutors can charge someone with a lesser offense to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence when they recognize, contrary to what they will admit in their press releases, that the minimum sentence would be ridiculous in some cases.
It's not all about crime rates, either:
Chicago's own track record demonstrates the harm in reading too much into crime statistics. The state's current mandatory minimum for illegal gun possession was implemented in 2011. The next year, city homicides rose more than 16 percent. It would be as ridiculous to attribute that rise in homicides to the mandatory sentencing law as it would be to pretend another mandatory law will reduce it.

Chicago's residents deserve real solutions to address city violence. New mandatory minimums are not the answer.
Whatever the answer is to Chicago's gun violence, it isn't longer, more expensive sentences for more and more people. Mandatory minimums look good in a crisis, but they are not good in the short -- or long -- run.